Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the country, and living a heart-healthy lifestyle is the first key to a long life. One important aspect of heart health is maintaining appropriate cholesterol levels. If your cholesterol gets too high, you put yourself at risk of heart disease. Luckily, it’s possible for many people to maintain their cholesterol through diet and exercise alone; others may find that medication is helpful as part of a healthy lifestyle. In any case, keeping your cholesterol low is simpler and safer than trying to solve a problem once it has arisen.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is fat-like waxy substance that dwells naturally in all body tissue. It travels through the bloodstream in lipoproteins, which are made of lipids and protein. Your body naturally creates cholesterol, and cholesterol is necessary for regulating certain body processes. For example, cholesterol is responsible for synthesizing vitamin D, making certain hormones and removing nutrients from digested food.

The problem arises when cholesterol levels rise over what the body requires. There are two primary types of cholesterol in the bloodstream: High-density lipoproteins and low-density lipoproteins. These types, called HDL and LDL for short, must stay in balance in order to avoid problems. HDL, often called “good cholesterol,” is the type that’s naturally produced within your body. LDL, or “bad cholesterol,” is often consumed through the diet, but it can be produced by the body as well. What makes LDL cholesterol bad is that it can carry plaque into blood vessels, which subsequently become clogged. This in turn can result in coronary heart disease.

If you have a reasonable balance of HDL and LDL cholesterol, you are usually safe from heart disease. This is because the HDL will help keep the LDL in check, which prevents it from flooding your arteries and causing blockages. If your LDL cholesterol level creeps too high, however, you can place yourself at risk for heart disease. Because LDL cholesterol production is tied closely to a person’s eating habits, many people have a much higher concentration in their bloodstreams than they should.

Identifying High Cholesterol

High cholesterol has no symptoms on its own, so a person can live with this condition for years without realizing the problem. In some cases, high cholesterol is only diagnosed after a person presents symptoms of heart disease. In other cases, high cholesterol is discovered through blood tests completed during a routine physical.

Some people are at higher risk of high cholesterol than others. Diet plays an important role, and people with diets high in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol may have high levels of LDL cholesterol. Additionally, there is some evidence that high cholesterol can be genetic, and some people have higher LDL levels than others regardless of their diets. Finally, obesity and diabetes can both be contributing factors to high cholesterol.

Lifestyle Changes that Lower Cholesterol

Whether you’ve been identified as having high cholesterol or are in a high-risk category, finding ways to lower your LDL levels through natural means is a smart choice. Diet and exercise can be just as effective as medication, and it’s not too difficult to follow a heart-healthy diet. Here are some tips:

– Avoid Animal Fats – Animal fat is the primary source of LDL cholesterol. Avoid fatty meats, eggs and full-fat dairy. Instead, opt for lean meat and low-fat dairy, or skip animal products altogether in favor of a plant-based diet.

– Avoid Saturated and Trans Fats – Any hydrogenated oils should be removed from your diet and replaced with healthier fats like those in olive oil. Also avoid eating any deep-fried or greasy foods.

– Eat Lots of Soluble Fiber – Studies suggest that soluble fiber may actually bind to cholesterol and help flush it from your system. Some common sources of soluble fiber are oats, bran, lentils, beans, flaxseeds and some fruits and vegetables.

– Eat Plenty of Good Fats – Omega-3 fatty acids are present in fatty fish like salmon and tuna, and these fats can help reduce your blood pressure and stop blood clots from forming. The fats found in nuts and seeds also play a valuable role in keeping your blood vessels clear.

– Exercise Frequently – Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart muscle and helps promote overall vitality. It may also increase your blood flow and circulation, which can help keep arteries from becoming blocked. Finally, exercise helps maintain weight, and obesity is a major factor in cholesterol build-up. Even a few minutes of aerobic exercise each day can make a huge difference in your overall health.

If keeping a healthy diet doesn’t work on its own to reduce your cholesterol, you may want to discuss medication options with your doctor. There are a number of natural herbal supplements that can help lower cholesterol. One of the most effective is niacin, a vitamin that can be taken in high doses to stabilize blood cholesterol levels. Be sure to discuss these options with your doctor. Depending on your situation, the doctor may also want to prescribe a commercial cholesterol drug like Lipitor.